Fascinating programme on TV One Sunday this week; see it here and here – contrasting the Australian approach to mining with the disaster at Pike River. Outside the question of whether there were any survivors, the key difference was the existence of union safety check inspectors. The Australians use them, we don’t. They can shut the mine down if there is a safety issue. Not here. The reason – anti-worker ideology.
The difference has a history. The Health and Safety in Employment Act introduced in 1992 removed the Labour Department check inspectors and made the use of worker safety representatives an option not a requirement. Here’s an extract from Helen Clark’s speech at the time of the introduction of the law under a National government:
In a speech on 2 June the Minister (Bill Birch) said that the Bill and the Employment Contracts Act “should not be regarded as separate, unrelated pieces of legislation. Indeed, they knit together so well that I dare say they may well be regarded as a world leader in industrial law.” That will hardly increase any limited confidence in the Bill that workers might have had. In that speech the Minister went on to say: “Underlying all our reforms is the premise that the Government’s role is to enable management to take full responsibility for work-places so they can be run in the best and most appropriate manner. That is what the health and safety Bill sets out to do and what the Employment Contracts Act is achieving.” Frankly, to the Labour Opposition that statement strongly implies that the Minister considers the contribution that employees could make to better health and safety as being quite worthless. The Bill has no role for workers, and that is the Opposition’s primary criticism of it.
The Mining provisions were reviewed again in 2006. After receiving submissions, the Labour Department produced a report in September 2008. The report noted:
Submitters were polarised on employee participation, and whether to regulate for check inspectors. Worker perspective submitters see check inspectors as a small change and the most effective solution for improving safety in underground mining, whereas employer perspective submitters see check inspectors as overly prescriptive and inconsistent with the performance-based approach.
Then there was an election. The Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson, refused to consider worker check representatives, a decision that was welcomed by Solid Energy in 2009.
Then there was an explosion. Watch how the Aussies do it and judge for yourselves. If you were a worker where would you feel safer? Leaving it to management to as Bill Birch said “take full responsibility” is not much use after the disaster has happened. After all, it is the workers who are down the mine, and miners have a long history of looking after each other.